Nature: Peter Owen Jones’ September column
PUBLISHED: 16:29 18 August 2020
The priest, author, TV presenter and ecological thinker contemplates one of his favourite aspects of this time of year - the dew
I love September: these four weeks in which the sun begins to slant through turning leaves above the woodland paths.
The land begins to quiet as all the warblers and other migrant songbirds set off on their long journey south. The hedges are laden with blackberries, the crab apples are swelling and there are now one or two stands of field mushrooms popping up on the unploughed land. According to an old country saying, from 14 September you can set off nutting, and the hazelnuts are ripe for cracking. A hazelnut fresh from the tree is white and sweet and if you can find them wild before the squirrels get at them, my advice is to eat them there and then. But the same saying also states that it is ill-advised to pick them on 21 September. That dates was traditionally known as the ‘Devil’s nutting day.’ He seems to get about a bit and also does something terrible to all the blackberries on 11 October. Thankfully he doesn’t appear to meddle with another of my favourite aspects of this month, the dew.
This period of late summer and early Autumn is really the height of the dew season. After a clear September night the downland and Wealden valleys are damp with dew. This shroud of moisture is formed by condensation, which in turn happens when the ground temperature falls below the air temperature. When this happens the water vapour in the air condenses, forming droplets on the grasses and lower hanging leaves. The temperature at which the droplets of water form is known as the dew point, and this differs very much according how the land lies. On some September mornings the fields at the base of the Downs are thick with dew while the ridges on the top are completely dry.
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Now that September is here I am determined to either make or buy a dew catcher. Essentially this is an aluminium frame with ideally a fine plastic mesh attached to it. It works by placing the upright frame above a collecting channel which has a tap drilled into one end. There are some good films on YouTube about how to construct a dew catcher. Or of course you can buy them and there are some fabulous new designs for greenhouses that act as dew catchers as well, so for a good proportion of the year they become self-watering. Such designs hopefully point towards a future where we are living and working in a more harmonious and mutually beneficial relationship with the natural world.
Harvesting the dew is a sustainable way of collecting pure water but our forebears also used it in another way. Women would leave the house before sunrise and either strike off the dew with their hands into a collecting vessel or lay out their clothes over herbs with a good covering of dew and wait for the moisture to be absorbed into the cloth. They then wring them out, keeping the water, and then dry their clothes which would then carry the scent of the herb. It was also believed that rolling naked in pure dew bestowed great beauty and gave immunity to freckles, sunburn, chapping and wrinkles during the coming year. To walk barefoot in the dew cured soreness, prevented corns and bunions and ensured healthy feet.
I can’t claim in any way that rolling naked in the dew has helped with the freckles, and being old and gnarly now it has clearly not had the claimed effect of bestowing great beauty. But on a fine and warm autumn morning I do still like to find a quiet spot and run my hands through the grasses, cleansing them in this most wonderful of waters.